La Chimera (2023)

La Chimera by Alice Rohrwacher is an enigmatic, dreamlike Italian fable.

Life and Afterlife

by Alexa Dalby

La Chimera

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

You know that feeling that you know you’ve seen something wonderful but you’re not quite sure what it was you’ve just seen? That’s Alice Rohrwacher’s La Chimera. It’s great cinema, dreamlike, discursive, magical and not fully explicable. Maybe it was a dream. Or a vision.

Josh O’Connor (Prince Charles in The Crown; God’s Own Country is Arthur, a lanky, aggressive Englishman in northern Italy, dressed in a crumpled cream linen suit, who is asleep on a train when he is woken by the ticket inspector. Who is he and why is he dressed for summer in what turns out to be Christmas? Has he been away for months? We know more about halfway through this rather long film.

Arthur gets out at a small rural station where he is met by Pirro (Vincenzo Nemolato), who he tries to avoid, who takes him to a rag-tag band of bizarre, raucous individuals, rather like early Fellini or Commedia dell’arte characters, who are overjoyed to see him but who he would rather not know.

He goes back to his corrugated iron shack which abuts a crumbling chateau, where he is friends with the elderly aristocrat Signora Flora (a magnificent Isabella Rossellini). She has many daughters, who see he is cold and give him a coat, and a servant/singing student Italia (Carol Duarte), who Flora exploits, confessing to Arthur that Italia sings flat but she doesn’t have to pay her.

It turns out that Arthur is a looter of ancient Etruscan tombs, prevalent in the region in the 1980s, notorious for his unique skill for divining the location of ancient graves, and the bizarre, merry band are his fellow tombaroli. They are characterised in a narrative song.

These tomb raiders make an illegal living by selling grave goods, placed in graves by the Etruscans for their spiritual meaning and for comfort in the afterlife. (‘Finds’ belong to the state.) They see these priceless archaeological artifacts only as an easy source of income and sell them for a fraction of their worth to a mysterious unseen fence named Spartaco, who profits hugely by reselling them and arranging export licences to overseas collections.

Arthur is drawn back into tomb robbing, while searching inconsolably for his lost love, Flora’s entrancing daughter Beniamina, who we saw at the start but it seems has unaccountably disappeared. He reluctantly starts a relationship with Italia, who is appalled to discover that he is robbing the dead. A last heist goes wrong, as they always do, and the thread of life (and death) makes a full circle.

Cinematography by Hélène Louvart (Never Rarely Sometimes Always) is beautiful. There are occasional comically speeded-up chase segments and sometimes the camera is turned upside down. Rohrwacher explains. Or does she? Everyone has their own Chimera, something they try to achieve but never manage to find.

In Tuscany, the old ways are failing (the empty chateau which Flora cannot afford to keep up and which her daughters want to sell so they can put her in a home). And some traditions still exist – such as the Epiphany costume and band parade and the village open-air dance in summer. But Italy’s spiritual heritage is being sold off by people who do not understand its value. A station building stands disused because the trains no longer run and it belongs to everybody and nobody. But Clara fills it with life, even though the children have nits, so it’s not all hopeless.

Hollywood Reporter review

La Chimera premiered at Cannes and is released on 10 May 2024 in the UK and Ireland.

Join the discussion